The notorious trans-Atlantic slave trade, which reached its peak during the 18th and early 19th centuries, dispersed millions of Africans throughout the Western Hemisphere. The first Africans arrived in colonial North America at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 and scholars contend that British colonists initially recognized them as indentured servants. Their status, however, changed in 1641 when the Massachusetts Bay Colony sanctioned the enslavement of African laborers. Similarly, Maryland and Virginia authorized legal servitude in 1660, and by 1755, all 13 colonies had legally recognized chattel slavery.
Due to diverse climates and geographic conditions, legal bondage varied in colonial North America. In the North, most Africans labored on small farms. Those who lived in cities worked as personal servants or were hired out as domestics and skilled workers. Although northern colonists had little use for slave labor, they accumulated substantial profits from the lucrative slave trading industry. Conversely, southern colonies grew quite dependent on human bondage. Southern landowners often purchased African laborers for their tobacco, sugar, cotton, rice, and indigo plantations. By the late 18th century, slave labor became increasingly vital to the southern economy and the demand for African workers contributed greatly to the steady increase of their population. This growth in population and the threat of insurrections induced colonial legislatures to pass legal codes that restricted the movement of enslaved Africans. While white colonists petitioned for independence from Great Britain, anti-slavery advocates also demanded human rights and liberty for all people, including slaves.
Shortly after the American Revolution, calls to abolish slavery and the slave trade generated increasingly widespread support. Led by Quakers and liberated African-Americans, the anti-slavery movement swayed some northern state legislatures to grant immediate manumissions to soldier-slaves and gradual emancipation to other enslaved Africans. Northern slaveholders allowed some bondsmen to purchase their freedom, while others petitioned for liberation through the courts. Slavery remained a vital element of southern society; however, and any opportunity to eliminate the institution nationwide ended in 1787 when the United States Constitution permitted the slave trade to continue until 1808 and protected involuntary servitude where it then existed.
The emergence of the cotton gin in 1793 revolutionized the production of cotton, further solidifying the institution of slavery in the South. “King Cotton” came to dominate the southern economy, as cotton production rose from approximately 13,000 bales in 1792 to more than 5 million bales by 1860. Increased cotton production necessitated an increase in slaves to work the fields, where men and women often toiled side-by-side, and the African-American population in the South also rose from approximately 700,000 in 1790 to nearly 4 million by 1860. By the mid-19th century, the majority of the nation’s cotton was raised in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, and nowhere in the antebellum South was the cotton economy more dominant than Natchez, Mississippi, which was “…the wealthiest town per capita in the United States…” on the eve of the Civil War.
Slaves who were part of the urban black community in the South frequently worked as domestics or in business establishments, and the South’s small segment of free blacks were comprised predominantly of tradesmen and craftsmen, including carpenters, barbers, blacksmiths, dressmakers, and seamstresses, though free blacks also earned livings by peddling, fishing, farming, and chopping wood. One of the most notable members of the South’s free black community was William Johnson, a former slave who became a prosperous barber renowned for his business acumen and wealth. Emancipated in 1820 at the age of 11, Johnson was apprenticed to a free black barber. Johnson went into business on his own in 1828 and was successful enough by the mid-1830s to take advantage of varied business opportunities. He operated three barbershops in Natchez, Mississippi where he employed free blacks and slaves, and he owned farmland cultivated by slaves and white overseers.
Although masters closely oversaw every aspect of their slaves’ lives, slaves retained some autonomy in their private family lives, in their relations with each other, and in their religious practices. Slaves endured the worst aspects of slavery through the strength of their social and cultural ties. A distinctive black culture arose, which provided meaning to life and transmitted values, attitudes, and beliefs throughout the slave community. Yet, the yearning for freedom was ever strong, as James L. Bradley succinctly stated in 1835 in his autobiography:
“From the time I was fourteen years old, I used to think a great deal about freedom. It was my heart’s desire; I could not keep it out of my mind. Many a sleepless night I have spent in tears because I was a slave. My heart ached to feel within me the life of liberty.”
The brutality of slavery and the desire for personal freedom inspired many slaves to rebel against their conditions. Slave rebellions in the South, the most dramatic form of resistance, were few and unsuccessful, due to the control slave owners exerted over their slaves. The most prominent slave rebellion in the lower Delta region occurred near Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1811. Four to five hundred slaves, led by the free mulatto Charles Deslondes, sent whites fleeing to New Orleans from the parishes of St. Charles and St. John until the slaves were routed by a contingent of U.S. Army regulars and militiamen. Over 60 slaves were killed during the rebellion, and those captured were beheaded, with their heads placed atop pikes on the road to New Orleans as a warning to other would-be rebels.
Slaves more commonly used flight as a form of resistance. Some slaves escaped and took refuge with Indians, who often welcomed the runaways as members of their communities. Others fled into unclaimed or secluded territories, such as the bayous of Louisiana, and formed maroon or free societies there. Still, others fled northward or to Mexico and the Caribbean, often receiving food, shelter, and money along the way from a movement known collectively as the “Underground Railroad.” Operating without formal organization, “conductors” of Underground Railroad stops, such as the Epps House in Bunkie, Louisiana, and the Jacob Burkle and Hunt-Phelan homes in Memphis, Tennessee, included both white and black abolitionists, one of which was Harriet Tubman, enslaved African-Americans, Indians, and members of such religious groups as the Quakers, Methodists, and Baptists.
In the middle of the 19th century, the United States Congress attempted to reconcile sectional differences by passing the Compromise of 1850, which included a Fugitive Slave Law. In addition to legislating the return of runaway slaves, the act proclaimed that federal and state officials, as well as private citizens, must assist in their capture. As a result, northern states were no longer considered safe havens for runaways and the law even jeopardized the status of freedmen.
By the end of the decade, slavery had polarized the nation even further, as events such as the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852), the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, the Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott Case in 1857, and the failed Harper’s Ferry insurrection led by John Brown in 1859 eventually precipitated the nation’s Civil War.